In the first episode of Emily In Paris, Lily Collins’ American protagonist, Emily, enjoys a cross-cultural exchange with a French co-worker, Luc. “I enjoy work and accomplishment. It makes me happy. It’s why I’m here: for work,” she says. “And look where it’s brought me. To this beautiful city.”
Luc pauses a beat. “Maybe you don’t know what it is to be happy,” he replies.
For the next nine episodes, this tension between cultural attitudes provides the basis on which Emily in Paris ostensibly operates. New today on Netflix, the show follows Emily Cooper, a Chicago resident who finds herself transplanted from her advertising job at a pharmaceutical firm, to a role working on social media campaigns at a Parisian luxury marketing company that her employer just acquired. As her American-apple-pie moxie meets eye-rolls from her French colleagues, the show’s DNA is a blend of The Devil Wears Prada, Gossip Girl, and Sex and the City (and it shares a creator, Darren Star, with the latter). In its execution, however, it lacks the bite of its influences.
I’ll admit that I initially raised an eyebrow when I read that Emily In Paris is about social media marketing – visions of an entire TV programme about doing TweetDeck swept my brain – though when I considered it further, I remembered that the advertising industry can make for compelling television. Advertising, at its heart, is the combination of tapping into momentary zeitgeists and timeless desires, and therefore a TV examination of it can tell deeply human stories – you only have to watch the season one episode of Mad Men called “The Wheel” for confirmation of that. But the problem with Emily in Paris is that while its entire selling point is that it’s in touch with the current cultural moment, it’s actually kind of… not.
Though social media is an important touchstone for the show – it takes the protagonist’s Instagram handle as its very title, after all – its liberal use of it already feels a little dated: Emily types in hashtags for some reason (doesn’t she know that authenticity is in?), and a post that gets her noticed by the Chief Marketing Officer of a beauty brand would never stand out in real life. Social media on the show is also an overwhelmingly positive force, which literally anyone who uses it will necessarily balk at. Though Emily In Paris is a comedy, there would still have been some mileage to be had out of a Twitterstorm over a brand’s post, or a celebrity Instagram Live gone wrong; and though they’re tonally different, when there are shows like I May Destroy You and Euphoria, which have embedded social media with such accuracy, it’s hard not to see Emily In Paris’ fluffier, less-believable approach as a wasted opportunity.
That’s not to say that a fluffier approach is always a bad thing. Each episode is 30-minutes of looking at ridiculously symmetrical people with hair that was styled in a lab cavorting around the city of Paris (visualised through Gossip Girl-worshipping montage) in mouth-watering clothes, without an inch of peril in sight, which is great fun to watch. In taking Emily out of her office environment more in the latter half of the season, too, it certainly improves (an episode where she has a tryst at a Champagne vineyard is especially enjoyable), growing the character so that her characteristics consist of something more than “caring about social media” and “being nice.”
For a workplace-centric show, it’s the work aspect that lets Emily In Paris down the most. In general, episode plots tend to follow a pattern whereby a new client is introduced, Emily is told by her dismissive French boss Sylvie not to meddle with the account, Emily meddles anyway, and her idea, which is somehow always genius, saves the day. While in the case of sitcoms, formula is important – the “client of the week” format works well, but I just wish we saw a few more variations on it – the consistent “Emily knows best” approach can feel grating, particularly when it comes to areas where she clashes with her colleagues based on cultural differences.
The show does demonstrate some self-awareness in this area – in true English-speaking style, Emily shows up in Paris without a word of French, and it’s commented on by various characters, and by Emily herself. Most of the time, however, the international relations are limited to the repeated implication that the French way of doing things is backwards, while the American way is supposedly the “right” one. One moment in particular, involving Emily tweeting virally about the word “vagina” being spoken in the masculine in French (“le vagin”), as if the French themselves had never noticed, is particularly annoying, managing to encapsulate both American exceptionalism and pussy hat feminism in one fell swoop.
For its intended audience of millennials and zoomers, the girlbossery espoused by Emily In Paris is realistically as much a fancy as all of the delectable clothes worn by the characters. Work culture these days is a hilariously far cry from having your own office and gallivanting on adventures around Paris with Lucas Bravo, but the show doesn’t push its own silliness far enough to quite feel in on the joke. There’s a difference, for example, between what we have here, and Carrie Bradshaw keeping herself in Valentino by writing one column a week, which is so ridiculous that it’s basically camp.
Ultimately, Emily In Paris reaches for relatability with demonstrably unrelatable material (with the caveat that relatability is very often not what entertainment should provide), and it would be a better show if it stopped trying – Gossip Girl, after all, never deigned to be anything other than gorgeous people romping around equally gorgeous scenery. It goes down best when approached as pure escapism: a frothy, sugary confection, and one that does sweeten with time – though the flavour is an uncomplicated one.